Phil Galfond is Making Adjustments

Of all the things that have changed in the poker world in the two years since the U.S. Department of Justice obliterated online poker overnight, there is at least one thing that has remained constant. Phil Galfond is still one of the world’s best poker players.

Like everyone else, though, Galfond has endured his share of change in the aftermath of Black Friday. You won’t find him playing $500-$1,000 PLO on Full Tilt Poker. You won’t find him representing BlueFire Poker, the poker training site that he started with a business partner in 2008. And you won’t find him in New York City, moving from one room to another in his swanky duplex condo via custom-built playground slide.

Phil GalfondThe game of poker and the poker industry have grown up quite a bit since the DOJ unsealed its indictments against PokerStars, Full Tilt and UB. So has Galfond — in his trademark self-scrutinizing way.

Game Over

On April 15, 2011, at about 1 p.m. Eastern Time, the DOJ seized the PokerStars, Full Tilt and UB domain names. At the time, Phil Galfond was doing what he loves best: playing online poker from his condo in New York.

Back then Galfond gave about 90 percent of play to the “nosebleed” stakes — the highest of the high-limit games — on Full Tilt Poker. A downswing in the days leading up to Black Friday erased two-thirds of his account balance. When the DOJ hammer fell, Galfond’s exposure was far smaller than it could have been.

“The downswing wasn’t really good, but it was at least good timing,” Galfond said with a chuckle.

By ending that Black Friday session of poker, Galfond began a three-month break from online poker, although he didn’t know that at first. It took a few days for the repercussions of Black Friday to sink into his head and for him to realize that online poker would be gone from the United States for a long time.

Many people might have given up on poker entirely at that point and looked into other ventures. As one of online poker’s biggest success stories, Galfond certainly had the capital to do that. The problem was that he didn’t want to do that. Online poker had been his primary source of income for years. He couldn’t just walk away from the game.

“It didn’t enter my mind,” he said. “It was at a time when I was getting really into triple draw. I was excited about it, having fun, and the games were great.”

Galfond assumed he’d figure something out. Rather than close up shop, he high-tailed it to Vegas to continue his education, to play through the WSOP, and to confab with friends. By the end of the summer, he decided on his first Black Friday-related life change. Moving to Vegas for access to live games wasn’t the answer. Galfond needed to leave the U.S. entirely.

Game Plan

“Every summer to me feels like summer camp for poker players,” Galfond of the WSOP. “We all get together in Vegas and play some events but mostly I just hang out with guys that I don’t get to see the rest of the year. While a lot of those guys are awesome guys that I love, I don’t want to be at camp all year.”

Galfond knew that he needed to be in a place that he wanted to live regardless of whether he could play poker there. He narrowed his options down to Australia, London and Vancouver before deciding that Vancouver’s proximity to friends and family in the United States gave it the edge. Galfond has written and talked at length about how his non-poker friends and family are a great asset because they allow him to get away from thinking about the game.

It turned out, however, that being away from your friends means being away from them, no matter whether you’re as close as Canada or as far away as Australia. Galfond’s life became balanced in an imbalanced way: time in Canada, which typically came in three to four weeks bursts, was spent grinding; time at home in the U.S., where he was unable to play online poker, was spent relaxing and on business pursuits.

“I had a vision in my head that I would go to Vancouver with a few friends and slowly start to build a little life for myself there,” he said. “But when I’m there I want to play — so I just play all day, staying in my apartment. I’ve started taking health a lot more seriously and I put effort into eating better and exercising a lot. That keeps me busy and keeps me outside of my own head. But otherwise I don’t think I’ve done very well in achieving balance.”

It’s startling to hear Galfond admit that he feels unbalanced. He is, by all accounts, still one of the most successful online poker players in the game’s young history, and some part of that success has to have been derived from his ability to “turn off” the game. Yet his willingness to turn a critical eye on himself and admit to aspects of his life or his game that he believes are currently coming up short may be the very thing that has allowed him to remain on top of the online poker world for so long.

A Whole New Ball Game

The top of the poker world isn’t as high as it used to be. The $200-$400 (and higher) PLO games — the “nosebleed” games — didn’t run for the year and a half that Full Tilt was shuttered.

Galfond enjoyed not only the smaller swings of playing smaller stakes, but also the reliability of the games. You can’t always just wake up, roll out of bed, and start playing $200-$400 or $300-$600 PLO. It takes effort get those games going. The same wasn’t true at $50-$100 and $100-$200. For someone who had just moved to a new country where he didn’t know many people, staying busy and feeling productive was a big part of the acclimatization process.

When Full Tilt returned, however, Galfond saw a change in the games. The nosebleeds started going with a little more regularity, although they have shifted away from PLO and more toward mixed games. He also thinks that more people know where they stand on the PLO learning curve than previously did.

“In the past everybody thought that they were good,” Galfond explained. “That’s what happens in newer forms of poker. Now there are only a few people that sit alone and try to start games at the very high stakes: myself, Ben Sulsky [Sauce1234], Ben Tollerene [Ben86] and Viktor Blom [Isildur1]. It’s kind of heading slowly the way that no-limit hold’em did. People know where they stand and a lot of them are afraid to play in games that are a little bit tough.”

That same trend applies in live settings as well. Galfond said he’s noticed that, since Black Friday, the PLO cash games that run during the WSOP are not as big as they used to be and are tougher than they used to be.

“I would play if there were the games, but there just haven’t been in the last couple of years,” he said. “I enjoy playing live cash, but if this summer’s anything like previous summers, I probably won’t be doing a lot of it.”

If Galfond doesn’t play a lot of live games this summer, he’ll have plenty of time to pursue his other poker passion: teaching. In December 2012, he launched RunItOnce.com, a poker training site. It’s something that grew out of his first few months in Vancouver, when he spent a fair amount of time writing blog posts for his now-defunct personal blog.

Game Selection

Galfond’s been involved with training sites before. He partnered with Billy Murphy to create BlueFire Poker, an online training site that the two men launched in 2009. The site rose to prominence largely on the strength of Galfond’s pot-limit Omaha training videos and a highly engaged community, for which Galfond was a driving force.

The partnership between Galfond and Murphy came to a dramatic end in late 2011. Galfond abruptly announced via a blog post on BlueFire that he would no longer represent the site. There had been no hint of such a move prior to the announcement.

“It’s very hard to walk away from something I helped build from the ground up,” he wrote, “but the most difficult aspect of this is the fact that I’ll miss the community … the members and my fellow coaches. Please know that it was a very difficult decision that I struggled with for a long, long time. I’m sorry that I can’t elaborate further.”

Galfond eventually did elaborate further. In a complaint filed in a Texas court in September 2012, Galfond alleged that Murphy never paid Galfond’s share of the BlueFire profits for 2011 and never provided accounting or tax records for any of the years BlueFire operated, making it impossible for Galfond to verify that the profit distributions he received for 2009 and 2010 accurately represented his share.

Murphy never addressed the lawsuit’s claims about accounting and tax records. He only tangentially touched on Galfond’s central claim about the missing 2011 profit distribution by claiming that it “didn’t make any sense” to pay Galfond in full for 2011 because Murphy believed that Galfond hadn’t fulfilled his contractual obligations for videos, interviews, blog posts and the like. Murphy maintains that, “I have paid or have offered to pay Phil every single dime that we believe he is owed.”

Back In The Game

Given the acrimony between Galfond and his former business partner, it’s easy to wonder why Galfond would ever want to be involved with another training site. It comes down to two things: complete control (Galfond has final say over all business decisions of RunItOnce), and a desire to shape the evolution of the game.

“For a long time, poker books pushed the collective knowledge of the game,” Galfond said. “I think that making videos, I played a big part of the evolution of poker theory, especially of PLO. I take a lot of pride in that.”

Galfond also acknowledged that his business inexperience — he was 23 when Murphy first came to him with the idea for BlueFire — may have led to a few mistakes. He had a learning curve that he had to climb and thinks that he didn’t do everything perfectly. Still, he views the experience of creating BlueFire as a positive and believes he learned many lessons that he can take with him to RunItOnce and any other business ventures he might launch in the future.

One of the biggest lessons that Galfond learned was that if he’s going to put his name and his face on a business, he needs to have full control of that business. He said his experience with BlueFire made him “a little more wary about essentially putting my face on something that I am not in full control over or entirely up on the day-to-day goings-on.”

That’s been Galfond’s MO for his entire career. He’s a player who puzzles through every decision that’s put before him, who doesn’t seem to buy into conventional wisdom about much of anything. Even when you have a conversation with Galfond, it almost seems as if he questions his own words as they tumble out of his mouth.

That overarching sense of self-doubt — and the honesty to admit it — maybe have contributed to the popularity of Galfond’s PLO videos at BlueFire, beyond their educational value for theorizing about a game that many players regard as little more than a high-variance gamble.

“I think that I played a big part of the evolution of poker theory, especially of PLO,” Galfond said. “I take a lot of pride in being able to teach poker. I think that’s one of my strongest skills. I have fun doing it because I think I do it very well. It especially feels, after not making videos for a year and a half, that I have a lot more to share.”

Ahead Of The Game

That’s exactly what Galfond is doing with RunItOnce. He’s back to making videos, answering questions, communicating in the forums and, most importantly for him, having his poker theory ideas challenged. He’s assembled an impressive team of coaches — including the Dang brothers, Steve Gross, James Obst and Brian Rast — to cover high-stakes PLO, high-stakes no-limit hold’em, and MTTs.

Recruiting the MTT coaches was difficult for Galfond because he doesn’t have a lot of familiarity with that community. He tackled the problem in a very 21st-century way: he crowdsourced names. He asked people that he knows that play lots of online MTTs (and people that they know), “Who do you want to see videos from?” Once the list was assembled, Galfond solicited sample video submissions and got to work building his staff.

Although Galfond recognizes that, pedagogically, distance learning isn’t the same as truly interactive, hands-on, in-person learning, he thinks both his students and he himself have a lot to gain from a site like RunItOnce. He doesn’t necessarily believe that’s true with private coaching.

“I don’t think there’s a good deal there to be had for either party,” he said of private coaching. “The only people that would really benefit from it and that would want to pay the rate I would want are people that I play against all the time. I’m not going to coach them!”

Galfond believes in his product, though, and his product is his roster of coaches and the content they produce. He’s confident he’s assembled the best of the best, from the nosebleed stakes all the way down to the small stakes. With that roster, Galfond is committed to building a new poker community and improving their skills and enjoyment of the game along the way.

“If we’re going to charge more than the competition, then we have to be better than them, both in terms of the amount of content we regularly release and the quality of it,” Galfond said. “That’s a standard we put on ourselves.”

Game Of Thrones

Being better than everyone else, and continuing to improve as the rest of the poker world improves, is a standard that comes naturally to Galfond, although you wouldn’t always know it by looking at him or talking to him. He doesn’t swagger or brag. You won’t find him on either side of outlandish prop bets. He speaks softly. And he seems to second-guess almost every answer to a question that he gives, not because he doubts himself but because he’s constantly turning those answers over in his own head, looking for the flaws in his own argument.

Galfond believes that his game has improved significantly since Black Friday, a scary thought for anyone unlucky enough to sit down across from him in a poker game. And he thinks the sky is still the limit in terms of undiscovered poker knowledge.

“Who knows the rankings of who the best in the world are at PLO. I’m confident that I’m at least up there and in competition with some of the best,” he said without sounding boastful. “But I know how much I learn every month and how much I still have to learn. Since I can compete with the other guys at the top of the food chain, I know that everybody still has a lot to learn. There will always be room for improvement.”

While he waits for the U.S. online poker legislative melodrama to play itself out, Galfond continues to shuttle back and forth between Las Vegas and Vancouver. He’d love to return to New York one day but is realistic that online poker won’t be regulated in the Big Apple any time soon. Even when online poker does begin to roll out across the U.S., Galfond said he’ll watch it carefully before he moves his whole life again.

“I really have no idea how well legalization is going to go. I may be more likely to live in Vegas [than in New York]. I rent an apartment there anyway and I like it there. Plus the live games are there. But it’s hard to know what the landscape will be when they start legalizing online poker state by state. I’d love to be able to be near my friends again.”

Many of those friends are back in New York, the city with which Galfond severed ties in 2012. He sold his swanky New York condo with the custom-built playground slide that was such a fitting symbol of his carefree life as the king of online poker biggest ups and downs.

I asked Galfond, on a scale of one to 10, how much he misses the slide. He chuckled, then gave the question some thought, as he does with almost every decision he makes in life, major or minor.

“Maybe just a 5,” he said. “I didn’t use the slide much but I miss having it.”

If that’s Galfond’s biggest complaint from the last two years, then he truly is still on top of the game.

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May 2013